Framing Free Speech

The news reporting, along with public debate, on free speech has been typical. It’s not just dissatisfying but frustrating. It pushes a narrative that infects many a mind, including more than a few outside of the ‘mainstream’.

I found an example of this, although I’m not in the mood to directly link to the piece. On the individual’s About page, he obviously prides himself on being an independent thinker who looks down upon ‘Puny mortals’ who “come by their worldviews by accepting in good faith what they have been told by people they perceive to be smarter or better informed than they.” He is so anarchist that he doesn’t think other anarchists are anarchist enough. Yet he is basing his own view on controlled rhetoric designed to manipulate public perception and opinion.

I guess he is so anarchist that he has looped back around to the other side of the spectrum, maybe with his anti-intellectualism trumping his anti-authoritarianism. After all, he describes himself as a white working class anarchist, which apparently means anyone with a college degree is his enemy, including working class traitors who decide to better themselves by seeking higher education. Or maybe he is simply yet another example of an ideologically confused American.

In the piece he wrote, he goes off on some weird sociopolitical rant. It has little connection to the larger world outside of an internet echo chamber. He is shadow boxing the phantasmagoric demons lurking inside his skull and apparently finds it to be a gleeful sport where, as he is the referee of this self-inflicted mental pugilism, he always wins. But what interests me is that his demons just so happen to take the shape of the caricatures portrayed in much of corporate media, with a clear right-wing slant of the populist variety. He writes that,

Well, unfortunately, because of recent riots at Berkeley, we can’t really say that anymore. Now, a lot of those involved or allied will say that, because this action was undertaken by a ‘rebel faction’, and not an established power, it’s actually a righteous insurrection, rather than authoritarian oppression. But given the fact that these are the children of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Microsoft, many of whom are ‘Trustifarians’, their proletarian cred is highly suspect. If you can afford to live and go to school in that area of the country, you probably do not come from a poor background.

It’s muddled thinking. This misses so much of the reality of the situation.

The protesters are a small group or, to be more accurate, a mix of small groups. Most of them may or may not be students at Berkeley. Many of them probably are locals or outside agitators taking advantage of the situation, an opportunity for two sides to fight and maybe having little to do with the student body itself. There could even be some agent provocateurs among them. There is absolutely no evidence that they represent most people who are either college students or on the political left. I doubt these people represent a ‘rebel faction’ either, whatever that is supposed to mean. For damn sure, I doubt that many of “the children of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Microsoft, many of whom are ‘Trustifarians’” are involved in political activism of the direct action variety, the kind that can lead to becoming a target of violent troublemakers or else violent police.

I share the words of this particular anarchist only because it captures the dark fantasy created by corporate media, especially right-wing media, although sadly much of the supposed ‘liberal’ media as well. It’s bizarre. And it is highly infectious.

Even if these protesters were all Berkeley students, one should note that a fair number of middle class and even working class people get into college. The majority of Berkeley students aren’t the inbred spawn of the plutocratic elite.

According to recent data: 99% of Berkeley students come from the bottom 99.9% in terms of family income, 96.2% from the bottom 99%, 77% from the bottom 97%, 62% from the bottom 90%, 46% from the bottom 80%, and 7.3% from the bottom 20%. Considering that Berkeley has about 40,000 enrolled, those poorest of Berkeley students number several thousand and there are 4.9% that “came from a poor family but became a rich adult.” Other data shows that, depending on class year and such, 21-32% of students have parents with income below $40,000, which would be around 8-12 thousand students. About a quarter of freshman and about half of transfers are the first generation in their families to attend college. I might add that the vast majority of Berkeley students are minorities, with less than a third of freshmen being caucasian.

It’s possible that the protest disproportionately attracted students from the lower classes and from among minority groups who have had a lifetime of dealing with prejudice, the kind of people more likely to be offended by rich white assholes like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. From the same piece I initially quoted, the self-styled anarchist stated that, “You’re wrong about the working class, I hope they kick your Berkeley ass.” It’s not so clear to me who will be kicking whose ass, considering the demographics of Berkeley students and considering the real conflicts in our society. It is ludicrous to think it is the privileged rich white students who are protesting against these privilege rich white supremacists. As Alex Schmaus explains about an earlier protest, targeted minorities were fighting back against attempted oppression (The far right goes on a rampage in Berkeley):

It was rumored that Yiannopoulos would be launching a campaign to target undocumented students and their supporters on sanctuary campuses like Berkeley. But he and the College Republicans were unable to carry out this plan after they were confronted by some 2,000 or more students and community members chanting, “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!”

The February 1 protest was inaccurately portrayed in the media as violent because a contingent of 100 or so masked Black Bloc activists carried out their own unannounced action–starting more than an hour after the much larger picket had begun–setting off fireworks and smoke bombs, pulling down police barricades, breaking windows and starting fires.

Reports of small numbers of far-right Yiannopoulos supporters trying attempting to intimidate protesters were ignored in almost every mainstream media account. Eventually, university administrators canceled the event, citing safety concerns.

I have no idea who are all of the groups of people at the various protests. I’m sure they represent a diversity of people on all sides with various ideologies and agendas, along with many innocent bystanders who simply got caught up in altercations that escalated quickly. My point is that most people with opinions about such issues are speaking from ignorance and that includes most corporate media reporters. No one seems to bother to find out. That said, I bet the FBI knows the exact identity and maybe even ideology of nearly every person that showed up, not that the FBI is going to share that info with the rest of us.

Here is what bothers me most of all. The political right is so much more effective in silencing opposition and frustrating free speech. But they do so in a highly controlled and devious way. A conservative college would stifle the free speech of both speakers and protesters. So, there would be no protest because there would be no opportunity. Free speech would be snuffed out in the crib. There would be nothing to report because nothing would happen. The corporate media tends to ignore what doesn’t happen (i.e., the muzzled dog that doesn’t bark) and why it doesn’t happen. The lack of free speech on conservative campuses is accepted as normal, not worthy of investigating or reporting.

Why doesn’t anyone complain that conservative Christian colleges don’t regularly have as guest speakers such people as anti-authoritarian pacifists, welfare statists, proud communists, radical anarchists, secular atheists, intersectional feminists, LGBT activists, moral relativists, sexual libertines, Pagan practitioners, Islamic fundamentalists, and Palestinian freedom fighters? These colleges also receive government funding but, unlike the larger universities, simply ensure nothing that isn’t conservative ever makes it within their walls. There are few non-conservatives and non-Christians in a conservative Christian college, along with few such people ever invited to speak. As such, there is rarely anyone to protest or any event to be canceled. An event that is never allowed to be planned can’t be cancelled, much less protested. It’s exclusion by design and we the taxpayers fund it, as Katha Pollitt put it (The Schools Where Free Speech Goes to Die):

If students are being denied a broad, mind-stretching education at universities often considered among the best in the world, what about the biased, blinkered, partial education that students are receiving at religious colleges? What about the assumption that no changing of the mind shall be permitted? Isn’t education supposed to challenge one’s settled beliefs?

And with Title IX exemptions in hand, colleges are free to ban and expel LGBT students, discriminate against women, use the Bible as a science text, and fire professors who disagree—without putting their federal funding at risk. The truth-in-advertising principle may protect the right of private colleges to do this. But the last time I looked, separation of church and state was still in the Bill of Rights.

Conservatives create an entire echo chamber of institutions and media. They shut out all alternative voices. There isn’t allowed any perception of other views. Their idea of free speech is to allow everyone they agree with to speak freely. Then they complain that conservatives aren’t allowed to dominate all forums and platforms of speech throughout the rest of society.

Yet, conveniently, conservatives don’t seem bothered when leftists are oppressed by suppression of free speech, such as those fighting Zionist apartheid. Howard Schwartz, as one random example among many, lost his position at a university for his lack of groupthink support for Israeli apartheid. Also, consider all of the careers and lives destroyed during the Cold War because of accusations of communism or communist sympathy. If conservatives had the opportunity, most of them would enthusiastically have a new era of McCarthyism.

It’s understandable that conservatives deceptively push the narrative that more than a tiny percentage of people on the political left care about shutting down free speech. The fact of the matter is there are far more people on the right who fear free speech. But we’ve grown so cynical about right-wingers that we assume they always have bad intentions toward a functioning democracy and, as such, we’ve stopped holding them accountable. Instead, even the supposed ‘liberal’ media seeks to silence protesters by promoting this conservative narrative, without much concern about petty factual details.

Why doesn’t the ‘liberal’ corporate media regularly do some genuine investigative reporting? They could research the larger context of what is going on. They could interview people to find out who are those involved and not involved. They could look at all sides such as seeing the role of right-wing instigators and outside agitators in fomenting conflict and violence. They could do surveys to find out what are the actual views and values of various groups, instead of making false accusations and unsubstantiated generalizations.

But if the corporate media allowed that kind of journalism to become the norm, they would no longer be serving corporate interests in a corporatist system that pushes rhetoric to further divide the public, ensuring that actual democracy remains hobbled. And you can see how highly effective is this tactic. Consider again the example of the avowed anarchist who has been pulled into this divisive narrative framing, without even the slightest clue that he is being manipulated. As I often repeat, never doubt the power of propaganda, especially not in the US where the propaganda model of media is more pervasive and subtle than maybe any ever devised in all of world history.

This is similar to how the corporatist Democrats used their narratives of identity politics. Sanders’ supporters were called Bernie Bros, as young women were attacked as gender traitors and young minorities were ignored, as both had been won over by Sanders’ genuine progressivism. Similar to how college students are caricatured, Sanders’ supporters were portrayed as violent radicals who are a threat to the supposed moderate and mainstream ‘liberalism’ of the corporatist ruling elite, despite the fact that the majority of Americans agree with Sanders on major issues.

We Americans are so propagandized that most of us can’t see straight. We are drowning in a flood of bullshit. Fortunately, there are a few voices that manage to get heard, even occasionally in the broader public debate. Yet the dominant narratives never change, as they continue to frame nearly all discussion and reporting.

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Ann Coulter’s Berkeley controversy isn’t really about free speech.
by Juliet Kleber

As Aaron Hanlon argued in the New Republic earlier this week, choosing not to host Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos on campus is not a suppression of their free speech. Academia certainly has an important place in selecting and elevating certain voices to relevance in a broader culture, but let’s not forget that a college isn’t a town hall: it’s a particular community of people engaged in intersecting missions of education. Coulter is not a member of that community and she has no claims upon it. Campus life is curated, and none of us outside of it are guaranteed access to that platform. Aside from safety concerns, that doesn’t mean trying to cancel her appearance was necessarily the right decision—it very well may be true that students should challenge her views face-to-face—but doing so is still not a violation of her rights.

That cannot be said, however, of the Fordham case. As Singal notes, Fordham is a private university, and as such the question of free speech in this case relates not to the Constitution but the university’s own policies. But unlike Coulter, who has a regular platform on television and in publishing, the students of Fordham are truly limited by what their university will and will not allow as protected speech. Those students have been denied the opportunity to engage in the political action they find meaningful. They have been punished for peacefully protesting that decision. At Berkeley, the College Republicans who invited Ann Coulter to speak presumably retain their official club status and likely their budget.

Berkeley Has NOT Violated Ann Coulter’s Free Speech Rights
by Robert Cohen

It was only after an ugly riot and arson by non-student anarchists on the night of the Yiannopoulos talk (leaving more than $100,000 in property damage on the Berkeley campus) that the chancellor reluctantly canceled the talk in the interests of public safety.

Fearing a recurrence of the Yiannopoulos violence, the Berkeley administration sought to postpone Coulter’s speech, and in the end asked that in the interest of security it be delayed a week. The administration cited threats it had received against Coulter, which is not surprising given that she is an intemperate nativist. Coulter and her College Republican and Young American Foundation sponsors responded with claims that the administration was trying to stifle conservative speech and that it had caved in to Berkeley’s “rabid off-campus mob” in doing so.

There are very few students on the Berkeley campus who see this week’s delay of the Coulter speech on public safety grounds as a free speech violation. That’s why the lawsuit the College Republicans filed this week against the UC administration had no Berkeley student sponsors other than the College Republicans. Think of the contrast with 1964, when there was a genuine free speech violation and a mass free speech movement; it mobilized virtually every Berkeley student group from left to right and even created a new organization of students, the independents, so that those who had been unaffiliated with any political group could be a part of the Free Speech Movement. In 1964 thousands of Berkeley students marched and hundreds engaged in civil disobedience when free speech was genuinely under threat. Not so today.

No, this is not a real free speech movement at Berkeley today, and that is because there has been no free speech violation by the UC administration. What the Coulter affair really amounts to is a “time, place, and manner” quibble.

Who’s behind the free speech crisis on campus?
by Dorian Bon

These rants in the mainstream press botch the facts of the stories they present, smearing thousands of mostly peaceful protesters as violent thugs, while disregarding the sincere debate on the left about how to confront the right on college campuses.

But that’s not even the worst of their mistakes. Their more spectacular failure is in attributing the crisis of free speech in American universities to the behavior of students.

There is, indeed, a crisis of free speech today, one that is steadily eroding the rights of students, faculty and staff in thousands of institutions of higher learning all across the country. But the blame lies with university administrators and bosses, not the student activists they loathe.

On campus after campus, university administrations are systematically rolling back decades of hard-fought gains for free speech, threatening students with suspension and expulsion for speaking out and clamping down on their right to assemble and organize. […]

THESE CHANGES occurred in tandem with a broader transformation of higher education, orchestrated to better serve the interests of business and the U.S. state, while placing the cost of education increasingly on the backs of students and faculty. […]

THE TRANSFORMATION of the university into a neoliberal regime has intensified the crisis of free speech on campus.

Contingent professors are justifiably afraid to express themselves openly with very little job security and power to defend themselves from their employers. Students, saddled with debt, cannot afford to risk discipline or suspension when their hopes of financial security depend on getting their diplomas and finding employment. To top it off, campuses are now dominated by an army of administrators policing student and faculty activity.

Conservatives Have Only Themselves to Blame for Today’s Campus Wars
by Jim Sleeper

This time, it was conservatives assailing colleges as too “liberal”—never mind that many campuses have already been transformed by the very corporate, capitalist incentives and pressures that most conservatives champion, with disturbing consequences that they’re trying to blame on liberal political correctness.

Some censorious “liberals” have indeed only helped to turn undergraduate liberal education into a dance of careerism, power-networking, and self-marketing. Many rail at glass ceilings that must be broken by women and people of color, forgetting that breaking the ceiling doesn’t improve the foundations and walls unless wholly different challenges are posed to the structure itself. Federal bureaucratic overreach has compounded the problem by enabling campus sexual-assault regimens to endanger the due process that is essential to liberalism.

Still, the accommodations of some left-liberals to the increasingly business-oriented and bureaucratic drift of higher education and of civil society are mainly symptoms, not causes, of our civic decay. Now that the Republican presidential campaign has elevated a financer of casinos and a vulgar, predatory self-marketer whom most of the Party denounces, even as its members asphyxiate free speech and open inquiry in Congress, the rest of us—some honorable conservatives included—are wondering just what kinds of “free” and “robust” speech right-wingers are willing to accept and what kinds of “political correctness” they themselves have imposed.

The students whom Deresiewicz called “entitled little shits” and whom conservatives characterize as coddled and frightened don’t exist in a vacuum. They are products of an increasingly frightening, atomizing society that turns college students from co-participants in universities’ historic scientific and social missions into isolated, heavily indebted consumers of career training. This model of education serves the casino-like financing and omnivorous, predatory, intrusive marketing that conservatives themselves have championed, even as it incubates a racially “diverse” global managerial elite that doesn’t consider itself accountable to any democratic polity or moral code. Absent massive public funding like that of the 1950s and ‘60s for higher education as a crucible of citizenship, students must mortgage themselves to future employers by taking courses and programs that private donors and trustees choose to fund.

It makes little sense to preach civic-republican virtues such as the fearless pursuit of truth through reasoned dialogue when conservative trustees and administrators are busy harnessing liberal education only to facilitate market priorities, not interrogate them.

It’s precisely because conservatives consider themselves so decent and principled that they’re in denial about their responsibility for the transformation of elite universities into training centers for wealth-making, power-wielding, and public relations, and that they’re campaigning so energetically to discredit those who want to keep liberal education somewhat independent of both markets and the national-security state.

Hoping for Another Battle, Nativist Trump Supporters and Antigovernment Extremists Again Descend on Berkeley
by Ryan Lenz

As the birthplace of the free speech movement decades ago, the debate surrounding Coulter’s speech put Berkeley in the precarious position of protecting its staff and students while ensuring freedom of speech, especially in a political climate where the possibility of violence between alt-right extremists and antifascist protesters becomes more frequent. Two previous appearances by far-right and conservative speakers have turned violent at Berkeley, including a protest on April 15 that left 11 people injured and six hospitalized. Police arrested 21 people on a variety of charges then.

Lawrence Rosenthal, chair and lead researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, issued a written statement on the day’s events. Rosenthal warned people not to be cowed by the alt-right’s claims of censorship and noted that the university had two concerns to consider in cancelling Coulter’s appearance — the unequivocal support of free speech and security.

“The situation at the University of California does not conform to the claims of suppression of free speech that conservative politicians and commentators have been trying to tie it to. Neither student groups nor the University administration are responsible for the threats of violence that surround Ann Coulter’s proposed appearance on this campus,” Rosenthal wrote.

Rosenthal also criticized Spencer for “exalt[ing] in the violence,” as he did in a YouTube video recounting the event.

“The deepest significance of the ongoing ‘Battles of Berkeley’ is the attempt by the alt-right to move the country toward fascist-anti-fascist violence,” Rosenthal said. “Conservative politicians and commentators wishing to use the Berkeley situation as a cudgel in the name of the free speech run the risk of enabling the dark goals of the alt-right.”

A white supremacist is accused of punching a protester. Classmates say he makes them feel ‘unsafe.’
by Lindsey Bever

In a video posted April 15, Damigo was seen talking about Identity Evropa, which he said is “interested in promoting and preserving European culture and values.”

He said his group was at the protest “because we believe that free speech is a European value and there are many people here who are wishing to use violence to silence other people. And so we feel that’s important to be here today to ensure that people are able to speak without having violence used against them and that they’re able to get their narrative out there and just start a conversation, start a dialogue and let people know that there are certain things they disagree with and some things they do agree with and they’re not going to be intimidated when these people come out here to promote violence.”

That was the same day Damigo was apparently seen in a video punching a female protester in the face and then running into a chaotic crowd.

The Schools Where Free Speech Goes to Die
Some of the worst offenders against the First Amendment are religious colleges.

by Katha Pollitt

 

 

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Public Intellectuals As Thought Leaders

“We are at a curious moment in the marketplace of ideas. It is the best of times for thought leaders. It is the worst of times for public intellectuals. It is the most disorienting of times for everyone else.”

That is what Daniel Drezner writes about in his piece at the Oxford University Press blog, The decline of public intellectuals. I understand the complaint, as it is far from unjustified. But I must admit that my perspective is different. I’ve seen too many bad examples of public intellectuals to be able to blame it all on thought leaders. Of course, that isn’t to say many thought leaders don’t deserve to share the blame.

My attitude on the subject is from taking a broader perspective on what it has meant to be an intellectual in the past and what it means today. In the past, most people were silenced, people such as myself. But it isn’t just that more people have access to being heard today. People also have more access to information and education than ever before. There simply are more smart educated people than there once was. Along with higher rates of high school graduation and college degrees, the average IQ has jumped up 20 points these past generations.

Yes, there are more thought leaders today. But there are also more public intellectuals. And generally there is simply more people involved in public debate. That is the only hope that we might one day have a functioning democracy. That is far from public intellectuals being in decline. It’s just that people don’t automatically bow down to them. When I think a public intellectual is wrong, I’ve challenged them and have done so with knowledge, even though I lack higher education. I’m more widely read than the average public intellectual, as understandably most public intellectuals have a field of expertise that has allowed them to gain public attention.

Is the world a worse place for there now being people who will force public intellectuals to be accountable and won’t let them slip past based solely on their claims of authority? This is a good thing and the author begrudgingly agrees to an extent, although one can sense that he is nostalgic for an earlier time when he imagines public intellectuals were respected. I’d point out that it wasn’t only the average person who was silenced in the past. Even most intellectuals and aspiring public intellectuals were silenced while a few public intellectuals dominated nearly all public debate, not always the cream of the crop rising to the top. There is no better time in all of history than right now to be a public intellectual or be involved in public debate in any manner.

Besides, anyone who thinks bad ideas didn’t flourish in the past is utterly clueless about history. And when a public intellectual makes statements to that effect, he should be confronted about it. The role of the public intellectual hasn’t fundamentally changed. And don’t for a moment think that public intellectuals never spread bad ideas. In fact, bad ideas would rarely become popular if not for public intellectuals. This is because there is no clear distinction between a public intellectual and a thought leader.

To be fair, he does make a good point about think tanks. There is big money promoting bad ideas. And it is hard for public intellectuals to fight against that. And he is right that the only solution is “is more discord and more debate.” But also more demand for honesty and integrity, especially from public intellectuals, whether working for think tanks or not (unfortunately, even scientists are increasingly getting their funding from corporations and corporate-related organizations). When a bad idea gets spread by a public intellectual, which happens on a regular basis, it gives that bad idea legitimacy. That is more dangerous than a thousand thought leaders spouting bullshit.

I read a Wall Street Journal article the other day, Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage by Bari Weiss (full text). He quotes from an interview he had with Haidt, a public intellectual who has increasingly become a thought leader. I found it a depressing experience to read his view because it was once again framed by a standard right-wing culture war narrative. He asserted college activists as being part of a dangerous campus religion, ignoring the incident in question at UC Berkley was instigated by unknown masked agitators who may have had no association with the student body.

Anyway, what about the long history of students protesting, sometimes violently, at universities that goes back centuries? Why is students protesting now all of a sudden a sign of activism turning into a religion? And what about all the other threatening acts by those who aren’t students: the attacks by Trump supporters, the recent increase in hate crimes, the violence directed at women’s clinic workers, the rancher supporters pointing guns at federal agents, the right-wingers who occupied federal land with weapons, etc? Is every act of protest to be considered religious or quasi-religious in nature? As always, there is historical amnesia and a lack of larger context.

Because Haidt is a respected public intellectual, his weird brand of conservative-minded liberalism gets pushed to center stage, the supposed ‘mainstream’, where he has immense influence. Worse still, many other public intellectuals will defend people like him, even when they step far outside their narrow field of expertise. To be honest, Haidt’s opinion on this matter is no more relevant than that of any random person. He is the kind of public-intellectual-cum-thought-leader that is disconnected from reality, arguing that academia has shifted far left even while being oblivious to the fact that the majority of Americans have also shifted left, further left than academia on such issues as economics. This has left those like Haidt trying to hold their ground in center-right liberalism, as the rest of the society moves further away in the opposite direction.

More than anything, what we need is more common people closer to realities on the ground, yet those who are well read and well informed enough to be involved in public debate. Their voices need to be promoted, as they often have perspectives that are lacking among the formally educated. For example, if we want to have a debate about poverty, the voices that are most important are the poor who have genuine insights to add, insights that most in the economically comfortable intellectual class would likely never consider. That came up in recent corporate media obsession with Appalachia, where a few desperately poor whites get all the attention while intellectuals and activists in Appalachia get ignored because they confuse the narrative, a point made by Elizabeth Catte among others. We need to rely less on a few famous public intellectuals to have an opinion on everything. That just leads to an increase in the incidents of the smart idiot effect.

I’m not sure the exact solution. I wish everyone involved would take truth-seeking more seriously, such as not making wild claims and accusations in order to get corporate media attention. I feel like the role of public intellectual has been cheapened, as so many attention whores chase the spotlight and compete for book deals. But I guess that is to be expected in this kind of capitalist society where even academics win the competition of ideas through fame and money. It doesn’t matter that there thousands of scholars with deeper understanding and insight than someone like Haidt. They don’t tell the corporate media hacks what they want to hear, the popular narratives that sell advertising.

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As a side note, this is hardly a new issue for me. I’ve long fought for a more inclusive and democratic vision of public intellectuality. If you publicly express your intellect on a regular basis, then you are a public intellectual. All that it takes is to be curious with a love of learning, willing to question and doubt, and a desire to engage with others.

I take this seriously. And I’m not tolerant of bullshit. I hold public intellectuals to a high standard because their role in society is so important. That standard remains the same no matter who the person is. Authority, perceived or real, doesn’t change the fact that a public intellectual has a responsibility to the public and so the public has the responsibility to hold them accountable. Public debate is a two way street, a discussion and not a lecture.

In that light, I’ve seen it as one of my roles to offer judgment where I deem it necessary. Along with criticism of Jonathan Haidt, I’ve turned my critical gaze to other public intellectuals, sometimes interacting with them directly in the process: Rick ShenkmanPaul BloomKenan MalikCris Campbell, and I suppose there might have been others.

Funhouse Mirrors of Corporate Media

Many talk about biases in the media, by which they typically mean the ‘mainstream’ (corporate) media. Most people would agree that biases exist. Yet it is hard to find agreement about what those biases are. Maybe that is an important part of it. The issue isn’t just about biases, but how our very perception of biases becomes biased. We lose perspective because our entire reality has become so mediated by media. The more our lives become saturated with media, the less we are able to see media clearly.

It’s similar to looking into a funhouse mirror and trying to discern the meaning in the warped image one sees reflected back. Now imagine if you were surrounded by funhouse mirrors on all sides, everywhere you went. To understand the distortions of one mirror, you’d look into another mirror with different distortions. We’ve come to see the funhouse mirror as reality. We are simply arguing over which funhouse mirror is least distorted or else distorted in a way that confirms our own expectations. What most of us never think about is who are the people who make the mirrors and remain hidden behind them.

Maybe the purpose of so much media isn’t in what it shows but in what it doesn’t show. The bias isn’t necessarily toward a particular ideology but rather away from the real source of power and influence. It’s a tool of distraction, a key component of politics as spectacle. If you want to know what are the issues of greatest importance and what are the views of greatest explanatory power, pay close attention to what is ignored and dismissed, what is precluded and occluded. Look for what is absent and lacking, the gap in between what is stated and the space outside of the frame where something should be.

The failure of corporate media is as much or more ommission than it is commission. Various media figures attacking each other about their supposed biases is yet more distraction. Arguing over biases is a safe and managed debate, each side playing the role of controlled opposition for the other. But what is it that both sides avoid? What is disallowed by the propaganda model of media? What is not being spoken and represented? What is missing?

Corporate Bias of ‘Mainstream’ Media

When people make accusations of liberal bias in the media, what are they even talking about? Are they utterly disconnected from reality? The so-called mainstream media is corporate media owned by a handful of parent corporations. Their only motive is profit.

Anyway, it’s not as if there is a lack of US media with a clear political right bias, both conservative or right-wing. This includes major media with large audiences and immense influence, but some of it is more directed at niche ideological groups and demographics. There is: Fox News, Yahoo News, Newsmax, Drudge Report, The Blaze, Breitbart News Network, Rush Limbaugh Show, Sean Hannity Show, Glenn Beck Program, The Dennis Miller Show, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, The New York Post, the Arizona Republic, The Detroit Free Press, Dallas Morning News, Cincinnati Enquirer, Reason, National Review, Cato Journal, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, The American, The American Conservative, City Journal, Chronicles, Human Events, The Independent Review, The National Interest, The New American, Policy Review, Regulation, Townhall Magazine, World, World Affairs, Newsweek, etc. And that doesn’t even include most of the moderate conservative media that gets labeled as ‘liberal’.

It’s not as if those on the political right are lacking media to support their worldview and confirm their biases. In fact, research shows that most media consumers on the political right exist within an echo chamber. The only reason they think the rest of media is biased is because the political right media that dominates keeps repeating this and, as the old propaganda trick goes, anything repeated enough to a large enough audience will be treated as if it were fact.

Here is one of the differences between ‘liberal’ media and ‘conservative’ media. On the political left, there is maybe more diversity of sources, none of which dominate all the others. But on the political right, Fox News controls the messaging, talking points, and framing for the rest of the news outlets that share a similar bias. Related to that, most Americans are further to the left on major issues than is the corporate media, as they are further to the left of both main political parties. When you are talking about media on the political right, that is bias that is extremely to the right of the general public. Maybe that is why more Americans are increasingly turning to alternative media, primarily available through the internet.

Another thing is that there is no simple relationship between media and viewers. Plenty of social science research shows that the liberal-minded tend to be more open and curious about the world, specifically about what is different. A large part of the audience of political right media is probably not people who are on the political right. I know that has been true of me. Because of curiosity, I can’t help but look at diverse sources, even when it just makes me angry. I doubt there are as many conservatives and right-wingers consuming news reporting from the New York Times, MSNBC, and NPR as there are liberals and left-wingers with the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh (although that would depend if one is talking about symbolic identities or operational ideologies).

According to Pew (Political Polarization & Media Habits), conservatives don’t get much news from a variety of political right media, as about half of the consistently conservative get most of their information from Fox News (with 84% having watched Fox News in the past week), a pattern not seen among consistent liberals. To put it in further context, the same Pew poll shows that those who are politically mixed get more of their news from sources that right-wingers claim to have a political left bias, which seems to indicate that centrists disagree with right-wingers about perceived media bias. In fact, the more liberal the demographic, the less they relied on a single news source (other data shows that the even more liberal and leftist young demographic relies on an even greater diversity of sources with more emphasis on alternative media and social media, including “approximately 85 percent of millennials regularly follow domestic and international current events both online and through print publications. Most millennials are following at least 10 topics at any one time and around 73 percent of young people are more interested in gathering information about viewpoints that they oppose than in learning more about stances they agree with.”). Also, that Pew data shows that most of the political left media clumps closer to the political center, at least in terms of viewers of mainstream media, whereas much of the political right media is far from the average viewer.

Comparing the two sides is false equivalency. All media is assumed to be liberal or leftist if it doesn’t strongly and ideologically promote some combination of:

  • blatant propaganda, political obstructionism, extreme opposition to democracy, voter suppression/purges/disenfranchisement, gerrymandering;
  • near-anarchist anti-government rhetoric, Ayn Rand Objectivism, right-wing (pseudo-)libertarianism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal corporatism;
  • proto-fascism, hyper-patriotism, war hawk neoconservatism, expansionist neo-imperialism, geopolitical interventionism, military adventurism, continuous war of aggression, military-industrial complex, intelligence-security-police state, gun nut militancy, oppressive law and order, mass incarceration, tough-on-crime laws;
  • religious fundamentalism, theocracy, Creationism, anti-Semitism, pro-Israeli, Social Darwinism, eugenics, hardcore social conservatism, white supremacy, ethnonationalism, scapegoating, dog whistle politics, race-baiting, red-baiting, attack politics, fear-mongering, hate-mongering, paranoid conspiracy theory;
  • climate change denialism, anti-science, anti-intellectualism, anti-immigration, anti-public education, anti-welfare, anti-immigration, basically anti-everything that involves social democracy, civil society, human rights, compassion and basic decency;
  • reverse political correctness, demagoguery, ideological purity, openly loyal Republican partisanship;
  • et cetera.

Everything else is part of a powerful secret cabal of leftist special interest groups, Jewish media moguls, journalist operatives, devious intellectual elite, and God-hating scientific dogmatists who have somehow taken over the global corporate media and are conspiring to push Democratic brainwashing, liberal indoctrination, left-wing propaganda, and the Communist-Islamic-Secular takeover of society. Yet oddly, when considering the details, that supposed liberal or leftist corporate media expresses views that are about the same as or to the right of majority public opinion.

The moderate-to-center-right media gets accused of being far left, the actual far left gets entirely ignored, and the far right media controls the entire framing of the debate about bias. Those who identify with or lean toward far right politics (liberarians, Objectivists, theocrats, etc) are regularly heard in the political right media. Many have their own shows, even on major outlets such as Fox News. When there are political campaigns and debates, we hear from panels that include these right-wing views. But when was the last time you noticed an equivalent openly ideological, hardcore left-winger (communist, anarcho-syndicalist, anti-imperialist, etc) with any prominent position in the supposed liberal-to-leftist media, with their own show or as a regular guest?

If you want to know the actual bias, look for who is making the accusation and getting heard. It is the right-wingers with massive backing from right-wing corporate media who are declaring that corporate media is left-wing. In their control of political debate, these right-wingers are using misdirection as part of their propaganda model. The fact of the matter is that all “mainstream media” is corporate media and, in our society, that means powerful big money corporatist media that is inseparable from the corporatist political system. There is no separation between the elites in government, corporations, and media. It’s all the same establishment of wealth and power.

It’s all rather pointless. According to corporate media and corporatist politicians, the views held by a majority of Americans—such as support for higher minimum wage, public option or single payer healthcare, abortion rights, stronger gun regulations, etc—represents an operational liberal bias (as opposed to the symbolic rhetoric so commonly used by the powerful to control debate and manipulate voters), which might be true in a sense if one is to call majority public opinion to be a bias. Maybe that is related to why, along with such negative opinions of ‘mainstream’ politics, only 6% of Americans (2% of young adults) trust ‘mainstream’ media. When we talk about bias, we have to ask who is being accused of bias, who is making the accusations of bias, what is the accuser’s bias, and how this relates to the biases of the general public along with various demographics. Compared to most Americans, the entire ‘mainstream’ media is biased toward the right-wing. But it’s unsurprising that, according to the right-wing, the rest of media and all of reality is biased to the left-wing. I’m not sure why we should take these right-wingers seriously. It does tell me much about corporate media that they love to obsess over and promote these right-wing accusations that largely come out of corporate media.

These days, with even NPR funded by big biz, where in the ‘mainstream’ media is someone supposed to look for hard-hitting news reporting and morally courageous investigative journalism about the wealthy and powerful who own the corporate media and control the corporatist political system? Once upon a time, back when newspapers were the main source of info for the majority of Americans, most newspapers had both a business section and a labor section. There also used to be prominent newspapers that were dedicated solely or primarily to labor issues. Is it surprising that as almost all ‘mainstream’ media has been bought up by big biz that the news reporting critical of big biz has disappeared from what has become corporate media pushing a corporatist worldview?

If there is a liberal bias among the corporate media gatekeepers, it is specifically the neoliberalism of inverted totalitarianism that is supported by a state-linked corporatist propaganda model. Calling that ‘liberal’ would comfort few liberals and even fewer leftists. There is a kind of liberalism that dominates in our society, including in ‘mainstream’ media, but the issue is about what kind of liberalism is this. Even many conservatives claim to be ‘liberal’ (e.g., classical liberals). So, what is this supposed ‘liberal’ bias? Is the corporate media actually biased to the left, considering the viewing public is itself biased even further to the left? So, left of what exactly… left of the right-wing?

It is true that the entertainment media is often rather liberal, but that is because it is seeking to make profit by entertaining the fairly liberal American viewing public. Liberalism sells because we live in a liberal society. There is nothing shocking about it. On a broad level, our entire society and everyone in it is liberal. Even American conservatives are, in this sense, just varieties of liberals. The liberal paradigm has dominated the West for a couple of centuries now. But it is a liberalism of the status quo, not a liberalism of left-wing revolution. This liberalism is not just neoliberal in its capitalism and corporatism. It also has much of that old school Whiggish progressivism favored by the classical liberals, the ideology that promoted imperialism, colonialism and genocide in order to spread freedom and democracy. It’s a paternalistic, authoritarian, and condescending liberalism that has become the heart of so-called American ‘conservatism’. The unscrupuous libertinism of our society may seem opposite of conservative ideals, but it is inseparable from capitalism and certainly not embraced by much of the political left.

Is the political right hoping to enforce right-wing bias onto the public, no matter what they’d prefer, just to make sure they are indoctrinated properly? The problem is those who complain the most about a ‘liberal’ bias are the very people who are the least conservative. Instead, they are right-wing reactionaries who in their radicalism want to push society even further into a skewed fantasy that has nothing to do with traditionalism.

Just listen to president Trump complain about the media and have his words parroted by the alt-right, even as he is the least conservative president in US history. In comparison, he makes Obama’s administration seem like a stalwart defense of traditionalism. After decades of capitulating to the far right and serving their corporatist interests, it’s amusing to watch some in the center-right corporate media finally protesting because their status quo is under attack by the far right. To the far right, the corporate media can never be far enough right, at least not until they are under authoritarian control of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.

I wanted to finish with a different but connected issue. The Pew data I mentioned above offered something that right-wingers latched onto. Consistent liberals are more likely than consistent conservatives to stop talking to someone because of political disagreement. But what this misses is that liberals are more likely to talk to people who they disagree with. A larger percentage of conservatives, because they live in ideological isolation and are trapped in a media echo chamber, never interact with anyone they disagree with. They can’t stop talking to people they never started talking to in the first place.

As a typical person on the political left, I seek out diverse news sources and so interact with diverse people. For every person I intentionally stop talking to, I meet dozens of other new people with all kinds of views. So, I still end up interacting with more people I disagree with than the average consistent conservative.

This is relevant to the perception of bias. Conservatives are less likely to actively seek diverse sources of news and less likely to interact with diverse people. Maybe it’s partly because, as data has shown, the most consistent conservatives tend to live in homogeneous communities and so are never forced to acknowledge anything outside of their reality tunnel (whereas liberals are attracted to diverse communities for the very reason they are diverse). What this means is that the political right accusation of political left bias isn’t based on much if any actual familiarity with media outside of the political right.

From my political left perspective, it is a thousand times better to listen to someone even if you later decide the interaction is undesirable than to never listen at all, to preemptively shut out all views that disagree, to accuse others of bias before you can even honestly claim to know what their views are.

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About this topic, there is a bad article by Ross Douthat, The Missing Right-of-Center Media.

I only mention it because the comment section is a worthy read, helping to explain everything wrong with articles like that. What makes it amusing is that it is an article from the New York Times, supposedly among the most leftist of the liberal media. The reality is that there is no missing right-of-center media. The New York Times, publishing writers like Douthat, is right-of-center media.

More helpful are two answers to a Quora question, Which media outlets in the USA are right-wing and which are left-wing? One answer is from William Goff and another from Mitchell Langbert.

I could offer tons of links to articles and such, of course. But there is no point. Besides, I’ve written about this enough before. The only reason I wrote this new post was because of the callers I heard on CSPAN who probably represent the minority of the population that still gets most of their news from corporate ‘mainstream’ media. I still retain the capacity to be shocked by how many people still don’t understand such basic things as how media bias actually operates.

Anywho, here are my previous posts:

Conservatives Watching Liberal Media
Bias About Bias

What Does Liberal Bias Mean?

This Far Left And No Further
Controlling the Narrative: Part 1
Response to Rightwing Misinformation
Black and White and Re(a)d All Over
NPR: Liberal Bias?
The Establishement: NPR, Obama, Corporatism, Parties
Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc

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